Slower than Butterflies

This post is based on a prayer session that I led today.  The title comes from a book of meditations by Eddie Askew, and the idea is that to appreciate God’s presence we need to be moving at a pace ‘slower than butterflies’.

During the Covid-19 lockdown I have been doing more walking, and more photography than usual.  I do love photographing butterflies, but it requires patience.  Although they don’t fly fast, they rarely stay in one place for more than a few seconds.  You have to stay around, observing them carefully and moving in slowly and quietly with the camera to get a good photo.

So here are some of my butterfly photographs, with some Biblical reflections about living slowly.

Small tortoiseshell

This is a small tortoiseshell, photographed on a riverbank – a very quiet place away from the noise of traffic.  We often need to find somewhere quiet to slow down and experience God in the silence.   The Prophet Elijah found this when he fled to a cave in the desert to escape persecution, in words that you may recognise from a well known hymn..

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ (1 Kings 19:11-15)

Ringlet

This is a ringlet, photographed alongside a footpath across farmland.  Sometimes you have to look long and carefully to spot the butterfly, especially a dull coloured one like this, and only see it clearly for a moment before it flutters away.  That’s a bit like the Holy Spirit of God – often we only have a brief experience of the Spirit before she seems to flutter away again. But even that brief experience may send us away rejoicing.  Perhaps that’s what St John had in mind when he wrote the following letter.  The word for “looked at” implies a lingering gaze rather than  a brief glimpse, reminding us that the wait may be long before the experience arrives.

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

Skipper

This is a skipper, feeding on knapweed.  Butterflies and other insects have a symbiotic relationship with flowers – the insects feed on nectar, while they in turn pollinate other flowers, and so both species can continue to flourish.  Jesus spoke of how birds and flowers depend on God for their existence without worrying –

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (Matthew 6:26-30)

Cabbage White

This cabbage white butterfly was basking on ballast on a railway line – a hot, dry and potentially dangerous environment with no source of food.  But  we can still find God even in places that seem a long way from a comfortable life, in the “valley of darkness” as well as the “green pastures”, as Psalm 23 reminds us –

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
(Psalm 23:1-4)

Speckled Wood

I found this speckled wood butterfly in a country churchyard.  The mound of earth may well have come from a recently dug grave.  As an old Christian proverb says, “In the midst of life we are in death”.  But butterflies are often held up as a parable of the resurrection: the earthbound caterpillar effectively dies as it turns into a chrysalis, which after a while yields the gloriously coloured, flighty creature that in its previous existence could not have imagined the glory that was to come. As Jesus explained –

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)

So take some time today to slow down to butterfly pace, appreciate the silence, look for the signs of God in the natural world, trust Him for your material needs, and remember that beyond suffering and death will be the unimagined wonder of the world to come.

Cornish

A grayling butterfly, seen on the Cornish coast path.

May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun.
And find your shoulder to light on.
To bring you luck, happiness, and riches.
Today, tomorrow, and beyond.
            (an anonymous Irish blessing)

Copyright  (c) Stephen Craven 2020.  Quotations from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

The Bible in a Year – 25 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

25 December John chapters 19-21

I am sure it cannot be coincidence that the reading for Christmas Day is the last three chapters of John’s gospel, which cover the death and resurrection of Christ.  The people who planned this year-long programme of Bible readings must have arranged it like that, and for a good reason.

Our priest at this morning’s Christmas communion service started his sermon by talking about the Yorkshire tradition of eating cheese with sweet foods – salty blue Stilton with mince pies, creamy Wensleydale with Christmas fruit cake.   He linked this odd, but actually very tasty,  combination of tastes to the fact that within the last week before Christmas, when the church is looking forward to the joy of the Nativity, and the world is celebrating in its own pleasure-seeking way, the church leaders and musicians have been planning the music for services in Lent and Holy Week.

It may seem strange reading about the death and resurrection of Christ, or planning solemn music for the season when we particularly remember those events, just when the focus should be on his birth.  But there are good reasons for doing so.

We cannot understand the birth of Jesus into the world unless we think also of the crucifixion. Nor can we understand the crucifixion without believing in the resurrection.  For that was the whole point of his birth.  The way God rescues us from the consequences of our own sin is to take those sins upon himself and suffer the consequences – separation from God, mental agony, physical torture, and death.  But that was not the end of the story – the resurrection proved that the sinless  one was stronger than sin and death and would live for ever.

Even at the time Jesus was dedicated as a baby, it was prophesied about him that he would be the cause of the “falling and rising of many in Israel”, and of Mary his mother it was said “a sword will pierce your own heart also”.  Throughout the last year or so of his life, Jesus had tried many times to explain to the disciples that his death – and subsequent resurrection – were absolutely part of God’s plan for him, and could not be avoided without wrecking the plan.

There is a line in a Christmas carol that says “man shall live for evermore because of Christmas Day”.  It sounds good, but it is not good theology.  It would be more accurate – if less poetic – to say “man shall live for evermore because of Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter Day”.  But we can make a concession – as the timeless God came into our world in the form of a time-bound human being, birth had to come before death.  Without Christmas there could be no Easter.  And without Mary’s willing acceptance of God’s will there could have been no Christmas.  Therefore we say with her, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”.

Merry Christmas to all readers.

 

The Bible in a Year – 4 December

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4 December. Acts chapters 14-16

If you have ever played the board game Monopoly you will understand the term “get out of jail free card”.  Players often find themselves sent to jail, where they must try to get out by luck (throwing a double on the dice) or otherwise pay a fine to get out.  But there are two cards that can be picked up at other times in the game that allow a free exit.

Tactically, it is best not to let your opponents know that you hold such a card, so that it is a surprise when you do.  Also, given you can only play it once, there is no point playing that card when it would only give you a small advantage – on the first or second attempt to get out, as you might be lucky with the dice.  It’s best to keep it until you really need it, on the last chance, to avoid having to pay the fine.

Paul did not play board games as we know them. But the Greeks played dice games so he knew about the balance between good luck and tactics. His “get out” card said that he was a Roman citizen, indeed he had been one since birth, as Luke explains later in Acts.  As a Jew, that was unusual, and there are many discussions online about how that came about. So people in other parts of the empire would not have assumed him to be a citizen (which gave additional rights above non-citizens). But when was the appropriate time to reveal this?

As Paul travelled around, his uncompromising style won him followers wherever he went, but also opponents.  In several places there were attempts to stop him and his companions.  Looking at those in today’s reading, first we have Iconium.  There, his opponents “with their rulers”, threatened to stone Paul and his companions (14:5).  If the rulers were joining in with the mob rather than seeking justice, they were clearly corrupt and his citizenship would have had little effect. In Lystra he was stoned again (14:19), this time by conservative Jews who had been brought in from outside.  They would not have been impressed either.

After returning to Jerusalem to sort out the question of whether gentile Christians needed  to be circumcised (fortunately, the debate went in Paul’s favour), he set out again, this time with Silas, and after some more positive experiences, they ended up in Philippi where again there was opposition.  This time they were jailed on the charge brought against them by a slave owner who claimed loss of income as a result of Paul casting out a spirit of divination from one of his slaves – probably a rather weak basis for jailing someone, even in those days.

Freed by the effects of an earthquake (which is not presented as a miracle, and the region is prone to them) they are told by the police that they can leave.  But that is not enough for Paul.  He thinks the time has come to play the card – “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” (16:37).  “They” are the magistrates, who are forced to come and make an apology in person to Paul and Silas for treating them as slaves rather than citizens.

Was this the right time to play the card?  After all, they were already out of jail!    Paul’s motive seems, therefore, to have been more about preventing further attacks. If the magistrates realised that these Christian preachers were citizens, they would be slower to apply summary justice, and word would get around that they were not to be messed with. Paul did hold another of these cards, and the time would come to play it.  But for now, the game went on.

What is your “get out of jail” card? What would you say to someone who treated you like dirt, denying you the rights that you know yourself to be entitled to, or regarding you as worthless?  It might be your education or practical skills that shows you are not as stupid as they thought. It might be “someone you know” who can advocate for you, or perhaps a natural or learnt aptitude to charm people round to your way of thinking.  But in all these, the element of surprise is not to be underestimated.   After all, even Jesus lived an ordinary life until he was thirty, and did not reveal himself until the time was right, when John the Baptist had already done his work.

Jesus also held the card that none of us can ever hold – the “get out of death free” card.  He played it on Easter morning, and do you know what – he has given each of us a copy for ourselves!

 

The Bible in a Year – 24 November

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24 November. Luke chapters 23-24

And so we come to the end of Luke’s account of the life of Jesus, with the trial, crucifixion and resurrection. He also starts here, with the appearance of Jesus p the Emmaus Road, his account of the beginnings of the Christian church. It ends with Jesus instructing the disciples to “proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations” (24:27), a task which Luke’s second volume (Acts of the Apostles) records.

From all this, the heart of the Christian Gospel, I will take the references to Christ as King, for that is the focus of Catholic and Anglican worship  this Sunday (the 5th Sunday before Christmas) .

First, the Jewish “assembly” takes Jesus before Pontius Pilate and lays charges against him, including that of claiming to be a king. Pilate asks for Jesus to respond to this charge, and Jesus says “you say so”, perhaps meaning, “if you are prepared to believe that I am a king as these people say, then I am”.  But Pilate does not consider any of the charges against Jesus to merit a death sentence, only a flogging.

Then, on the cross, the Roman soldiers also mock him “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (23:27). Maybe they were the same people who had mocked him in the same way with a purple robe at his trial.  And finally, there was an inscription over him, attributed in John’s gospel to Pilate, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’”

It seems that this was the most controversial title for Jesus in his day.  The Jewish people had not had a king of their own since before the Exile over 500 years earlier, and the Roman Emperor represented by the governor was the head of state in his day.  It does not seem from the Gospel stories that Jesus went about calling himself King: it was a title possibly given to him by his followers out of admiration, but mainly as a controversial political claim by his enemies in order to try and provoke Pilate or Herod to try him for treason.  The fact that neither of them did so shows that they did not consider him a political threat.

In Luke’s account of the Emmaus road and the subsequent appearance to all the apostles, Jesus still does not use this title about himself, preferring “Messiah” (although as that means ‘the anointed one’ it carries much the same meaning). Christians do call Jesus the King, though – but not “King of the Jews” for we believe his reign is over not just the Jewish people or the state of Israel, but all of creation.  Jesus’s kingship really only started with the Resurrection.    When we celebrate Christ the King and then move into Advent, we remember not only the fact that he reigns invisibly on earth now, but also the centuries of waiting that preceded his coming, and the faith that he will come again in visible form to take up his rightful place among us.

The Bible in a Year – 18 November

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18 November. Luke chapters 10-11

When people ask for a “sign” to prove that Jesus was truly the Son of God, he refers them to the story of Jonah.  Why Jonah?  He shares some things in common with Jesus: perhaps most obviously in the storytelling, as Jonah slept in the boat, a great storm blew up and his fellow passengers woke him, believing that he could calm the storm, just as Jesus did.  But Jonah was not the Messiah, in fact we are told that he was sinning by running away from God, and far from being able to calm the storm, only by being thrown overboard, apparently to certain death, could it be abated.  So when Jesus calmed the storm with a single word, he was reckoning himself greater than a prophet.

That explains Jesus’ next comment, “The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!” (11:32). How else was Jesus greater?  Well he rose from the dead.  Jonah was in the darkness of the fish until the third day when it miraculously spewed him up, alive and unharmed, on dry land.  Likewise Jesus lay dead in the tomb until the third day, but he was resurrected.

Jonah was very unlike Jesus, though, in one respect. He loved the idea of preaching doom to the people of Nineveh but hated it when they obeyed the message and repented, and God spared them from destruction.  Jesus on the other hand wept over those who refused his message of salvation, and told of the joy there would be in heaven over one sinner who repents.  Which are you?  A Jonah who loves bringing bad news, or like Jesus, one who delights in bringing good news?

The Bible in a Year – 12 November

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12 November. Mark chapters 15-16

Today is Remembrance Sunday.  Along with hundreds of people of all faiths and none from our local community, I attended the act of remembrance at our local war memorial in Bramley Park.  We had readings from the book of Micah (common scripture to Jews and Christians) and prayers from Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh faith leaders as well as some words from local councillors and representatives of the armed services.

The common theme of such acts of remembrance is praise for those who have died in the service of their country.  If pressed, I am sure the families of those victims would admit that their son, brother or uncle was not a perfect person, for none of us is perfect.  But this is not the time to point out faults.  If someone has taken it upon himself (or increasingly, herself) to fight in defence of their people or for the sake of human rights, then it is commonly acknowledged that such sacrifice deserves more than mere respect. It is accepted that laying down one’s life for others is of such moral value that it wipes out any faults that the person might have had, and leaves them fit to receive the accolade of “hero” – maybe even a posthumous medal.

Jesus did not give up his life in military service. In fact, while accepting the necessity of armed forces (he told soldiers who wished to follow him, not to desert their posts but to do their job faithfully and impartially), he himself was a man of peace, critical of those among his disciples who wished to take up arms.  Yet, we recognise that he did voluntarily lay down his life.  He could have just been a provincial rabbi, but instead he followed the insistent calling of the Holy Spirit to a unique ministry that he knew from early on would lead to his being martyred.

In giving himself up in this way, the perfect man for the sake of the imperfect, Jesus won a title that is far greater than that of a war hero, or even an ordinary person killed for their outspoken words of truth such as Martin Luther King or Oscar Romero.  Even the Roman centurion who was in charge of the execution called him “a son of God” (15:39).  To the writers of the Gospels, including Mark (who may have been one of Jesus’ disciples), the resurrection and the place at the right hand of God (16:19) were the fitting reward for this sacrifice.

Once a year we remember the war dead of the world.  But every week (or in some communities, every day) Christians gather to remember the death of Jesus as we share the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper.  As we approach the communion table, we proclaim: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!”  That is true remembrance.

The Bible in a Year – 4 November

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4 November. Matthew chapters 27-28

These last two chapters of the Gospel cover Matthew’s version of the most important events of the whole Bible – the death and resurrection of Jesus.  What can I add to the volumes that have been written about those world-changing three days?

Let’s consider the attitudes towards Jesus of the people who encountered him. Firstly those who responded negatively. Firstly, the “chief priests and elders” (27:20) who whipped up the emotions of the crowd to have Jesus crucified, even though Pilate was minded to release him.  Those same priests and elders panicked, if Matthew’s account is to be believed, on Easter day when the report of the resurrection reached them: like most politicians whose judgements have been proved wrong, rather than admitting  their mistake they turned to bribery and false reporting in order to suppress the truth (28:12-14).

Then there were the soldiers who mocked him, made him (and Simon) carry the cross, gambled for his clothing as he hung dying. And the two bandits hung alongside him who, along with the soldiers and passers-by, taunted him to perform one last miracle by coning down from the cross – just as he had been tempted by the Devil in the desert to perform miracles for the sake of his own health and popularity. And of course the crowd, who would go along with whatever the religious leaders said.

Two key players changed their mind in all the confusion of the proceedings of Holy Week: Pilate who seemed to believe Jesus was innocent, but was not prepared to risk his own reputation in Rome by letting a riot begin because of it; and Judas, who repented of his betrayal. But for him it was too late.

But among other observers were individuals who bucked the trend, who had the courage to ignore popular opinion and believe that Jesus was worth respect, who had at least the common humanity which cannot ignore another person in distress.  These few made all the difference.

There was Pilate’s wife, who because of a presumably God-given  dream (what was it, we wonder?) was convinced of Jesus’ innocence (27:19) – but her word was not enough to turn Pontius from his course. There were the unnamed bystanders who twice offered him wine (presumably as a feeble attempt at anaesthetising his pain – which he refused). There were his own mother, the mothers of some of his disciples and “many other women” who endured the mental torment of watching him and the two thieves die in agony, because they believed in Jesus to the end. Hats off to Joseph of Arimathea: he had the courage to believe in Jesus’ right to a respectful burial, to ask for his bloodied body, and to risk ritual uncleanness by handling it.  The two Marys (Magdalen, and the mother of James and Joseph) also were willing to start embalming the body, and to come back at first light after the Sabbath to continue despite knowing the sealed tombstone would be almost impossible to move.  If they had not done so, would they have witnessed the most incredible sight ever?

Maybe these people had been in the crowd when Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and remembered that showing mercy to someone in great difficulty (irrespective of their gender, ethnicity, beliefs or what got them into difficulty) is a sign of love for God as well a neighbour.  Maybe they were also there when he said “blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy”.  For it is easy – I will admit to it myself – to walk past when someone is in trouble, especially if they are not like us.  It is not difficult to agree with the principle that we are all brothers and sisters in this life and we need to help each other.  But it is far more difficult to put it into practice.  Thank God for those who do, and especially for those who helped Jesus and showed him respect in both life and death.

The Bible in a Year – 18 October

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18 October. 2 Corinthians chapters 5-9

In chapter 5 Paul speaks of our present physical bodies (which he describes as like a ‘tent’ – a temporary dwelling) as if they do not really matter.  In fact our whole viewpoint should shift so that heaven becomes “home”, and being in this body in this life becomes like an “away match”. Or (to keep to his preferred metaphor) like being on trek in a foreign country and sleeping in a tent, while longing for the comforts of our real home.  The reason for this, he goes on to explain, is that we are a “new creation”, the idea that when someone repents of past wrongs and turns to Jesus Christ for a new life, it really is like a new birth.  Therefore this life in the body already belongs to the past, and the anticipation of the future life in our resurrection bodies (about which he had written in his first letter to the Corinthians) is the present reality.

Such a true and complete repentance does not often come about at a single step.  There are indeed those whose lives are transformed in a moment – drug addicts who drop the habit the moment they turn to Christ, prisoners who become Christians in jail and never return to crime when they are freed, violent people who never again speak a word in anger.  But for most of us, repentance and a growth into Christ-likeness are a lifelong journey with constant challenges and setbacks.  Paul explains how he had needed to write to the Corinthians (who had already declared their faith in Christ) in strong and critical terms in order to get them to see that they were still far short of a Christlike life.  But now he rejoices that they have recognised that, and made the effort to repent and move on to a new level of faith. He separates this from ordinary criticism by making the distinction between two types of “grief”: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.” (7:10).

I know that certain good and holy Christians have challenged me at various times about different aspects of my life and personality, producing at first resentment, then acknowledgment of the truth of their words, and finally this “holy grief” of which Paul speaks, that leads to salvation.

The Bible in a Year – 16 October

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16 October. 1 Corinthians chapters 15-16

Here, Paul covers the core doctrine of Christianity – the resurrection.  Even writing to his own converts, Paul has to dispel a number of misunderstandings, which are still common today.  That is not surprising, since it will be something outside our present understanding.

The first misunderstanding he addresses is thinking that there were few witnesses to the  resurrection of Jesus. In fact, he says, Jesus appeared to “Cephas, then to the twelve, then to more than five hundred at one time, then to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all he appeared also to me”  (15:5-7). There was no lack  of evidence for the visible resurrection of Jesus.

Then, Paul goes on to use logical principles to argues that the resurrection of even one person means that it is wrong to say that no-one can be resurrected; and if so, then why only one? Jesus is described as the “first fruits”, the proof that the time of harvest has come.  Many of the traditional Harvest hymns are actually allegorical, pointing to the “harvest of souls” at the end of time.  The purpose of Christ being raised first is that he can complete his work of “subjecting every ruler, authority and power”.  That language is strange to us, but seems to mean that the risen (but no longer visible) Jesus is working “behind the scenes” to ensure that eventually, only God will have authority on earth, and not the other ‘forces’ that are at work in the world (not necessarily evil, but not godly either).

The third main misunderstanding Paul deals with is the idea that our resurrection bodies will be like the ones we have now.  He uses the illustration of sowing seeds – the plant that grows is not only totally unlike the seed, but much greater, and its nature cannot be guessed by looking at the seed.  So, our ‘spiritual’ bodies after the resurrection will be so unlike our earthly ones that we cannot imagine them, and it is pointless to do so.

The Bible in a Year – 20 June (2)

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20 June. Jonah

The legend of Jonah is one of those Old Testament stories beloved of Sunday School teachers because of its vivid description of Jonah being swallowed and regurgitated by a great fish (often incorrectly called a whale).  Only the most literal minded of readers would take this as a true story: it is much like one of Jesus’ parables, and to be taken allegorically like them.

 

Jonah, in fact, shares some things in common with Jesus: firstly, as he slept in the boat, a great storm blew up and his fellow passengers woke him, believing that he could calm the storm, just as Jesus did.  But Jonah was not the Messiah, in fact we are told that he was sinning by running away from God, and far from being able to calm the storm, only by being thrown overboard, apparently to certain death, could it be abated.  So when Jesus calmed the storm with a single word, he was reckoning himself greater than a prophet.

 

Secondly, Jonah was in the darkness of the fish until the third day when it miraculously spewed him up, alive and unharmed, on dry land.  Likewise Jesus lay dead in the tomb until the third day when he was resurrected.

 

Jonah was very unlike Jesus, though, in one respect. He loved the idea of preaching doom to the people of Nineveh but hated it when they obeyed the message and repented, and God spared them from destruction.  Jesus on the other hand wept over those who refused his message of salvation, and told of the joy there would be in heaven over one sinner who repents.  Which are you?  A Jonah who loves bringing bad news, or like Jesus, one who delights in bringing good news?